It seems like PSAs have always been more about beating you over the head with a message than actually informing or serving the public. Whether it’s somehow comparing your brain to an egg, or trying to scare the bejeezus out of you with a puppet that looks like Lou Reed (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQhFQJ4deNQ) they usually end up raising more questions than they answer. Here’s a rundown of some PSAs that I’ve always found to be bizarre, confusing, and poorly suited to whatever point they were trying to make- usually because they try to shoehorn in something that will appeal to kids.
- Star Wars Droids say, “Don’t Smoke!
WHAT THEY INTENDED: We’ll do ANYTHING to get kids to not smoke. What do kids love more than anything? I know! Star Wars! They like…those cute robots, right? We’ll have them talk to the kids about smoking, and the kids will just blindly obey whatever the robots tell them! Because it’s Star Wars.
WHAT WE GOT: Oh, holy crap. There’s a lot of questions here. See if you can help answer them. Why does R2 want to smoke- to seem “Grown up?” He’s not a human! He doesn’t even ‘age’ according to human standards! Who’s he trying to impress? Secondly, HOW was R2 planning to smoke that thing? He’s just holding it with his little arm- what else could he possibly do with it, shove it up his robotic cornhole? He has no way to inhale, exhale, smell, taste- wait a minute, where’d he get that thing? Who in the Star Wars universe has cigs? Also, why would he listen to C-3P0’s opinion on anything, least of all being ‘adult’ or cool? 3P0’s a petty little whiner, and they’re having a lover’s spat by the end of the damn thing. Did we HAVE to use these characters? I mean, it cost less than hiring Harrison Ford, but why spend any money on an ad that’s so poorly thought out and clumsily written that it won’t teach kids anything? Couldn’t Han be telling Luke not to smoke? Or Yoda telling Luke? Maybe Leia could tell Han she doesn’t like guys who smoke…OH THE HELL WITH IT. This is even less subtle than the “Death Sticks” scene in Episode 2. But there was no reason for it to be this nonsensical!
2. “Don’t Put it in Your Mouth”
WHAT THEY INTENDED: A simple, cute song to tell kids not to eat dirty or harmful things. Now they won’t eat things they’re allergic to, or medication, or crap they found on the ground.
WHAT WE GOT: Terrifying puppets (especially that lion), ineffective humor, and a song with more unintentional innuendo than you can shake a stick at. “Remember to always ask someone you love before putting something in your mouth!”
Also…what if the kid isn’t with anyone they love when they happen to be served food? Like, they’re at a friend’s house, but they don’t love the friend’s mom/dad/robotic cargiver, so they can’t eat what they were given and then the friend’s family flips out and there’s an ugly scene and…yeah.
3. CATS Anti-Smoking Ad
WHAT THEY INTENDED: Kids like that “Cats” show, right? They get up there with the cats at intermission and have a gay old time! Even grandma loves this show. The kids will dig this, and then they won’t smoke.
WHAT WE GOT: Based on my experience, for every person all over the world that loves or even mildly enjoys “Cats”, there are two people that think it’s the stupidest thing they’ve ever seen. This is especially true for how people react to the costumes the actors wear and their exaggerated movements. This commercial is nothing BUT costumes and movement, so there’s no middle ground for anyone. Also, the characters aren’t human so smoking is a non-issue, the rhyming sounds forced, overacted, and strange(nothing new for Andrew Lloyd Weber, though) , and oh yeah, CATS WOULD TOTALLY SMOKE if they were able to do it in real life. Especially to annoy humans.
4. Sexy Smokey
WHAT THEY INTENDED: People will look at the hot woman, and be surprised that it’s Smokey the Bear in a horrible disguise. Then they’ll say: “Oh, lovable old Smokey, you caught me off guard. You’re so right, we should listen to your simple wisdom.”
WHAT WE GOT: A terrifying ad that makes no sense. Where did Smokey get that mask? How did he get the idea to do this? Is he Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs? Why is he assuming we won’t listen to him when we already know Smokey, so we must sort of have listened at least once? What do hot babes have to do with saving the forest? HOW DID HE CHANGE HIS VOICE?
5. Pee-Wee Herman says: “This is Crack.”
WHAT THEY INTENDED: A frank look at dispelling the culture of wealth and excess that surrounded the use of cocaine and crack in the 1980s, delivered by a beloved kids’ icon.
WHAT WE GOT: Okay, let me make one thing perfectly clear here: I love Pee-Wee. I am a huge fan of all of Paul Reubens’ work, and I am proud to say it. I think the main reason he even did this ad was because he got arrested, and this was meant to atone for the arrest in some way. (But if everyone were arrested for doing what he did, let’s face it- no one would be left to walk the streets.) So, let’s keep that in mind- I don’t think the ad was his idea. It’s interesting to see him attempting to talk to kids in a serious way about a serious subject, and he sounds very sincere; also, he’s not talking down to them. However, Pee-Wee’s weird voice undercuts the seriousness. Also, Pee-Wee’s saying we shouldn’t worry about being cool, but his whole shtick is that he’s so bizarre and uncool that he actually IS cool without trying to be cool…so is he contradicting himself here, or not? I’m genuinely unsure. Don’t even get me started on how trippy his TV show is, or how his humor was originally for adults.
To sum it all up: this is serious advice that’s too hard to accept at face value, because it’s so hard to separate the speaker from what he is saying. Also, he did play a very convincing drug dealer in “Blow”… perhaps that was his revenge against this ad? Hmmm.
6. Astar says “Play Safe”
WHAT THEY INTENDED: A fun and exciting sci-fi themed ad that would hook in kids, then leave a message with real impact.
WHAT WE GOT: A frankly creepy robot, and an abrupt, tacked-on message that doesn’t really offer us any advice. It may be for a good cause, but…“I can put my arm back on. You can’t. So play safe.” Well, no shit we can’t put our arms back on, unless we already have an artificial arm. Could you give us some CONCRETE DESCRIPTIONS of “playing safe?” No, because we just saw you do a bunch of unsafe things and now the ad is suddenly over! You didn’t even show us how to avoid danger, you ran right into it! I’m starting to suspect that maybe this group cares about kids, but Astar sure doesn’t. Way to disregard the three laws of robotics, buddy.
A poorly made PSA can inspire nightmares, or snickers. In my opinion, a PSA should impart information that’s necessary, but not too complicated to fit in to a short commercial. It shouldn’t talk down to children, or even to adults- and frankly, using a character from popular culture can be a way of talking down. It can look like the company assumes you’re too lazy or stupid to pay attention otherwise. It should be memorable and realistic, but resorting to shock value can alienate people from the point you try to make.
My favorite PSA? This one. It’s simple, memorable, makes a point kids would understand without scaring them or using a mascot, and it teaches them to ask questions they may not have otherwise. Now if you’ll excuse me, I could go for a peanut butter on toast.